Elaine Pagels is famous for asking hard questions. Her latest: ‘Why Religion?’


The scholar’s professional life has been about challenging orthodox ways of thinking about Christianity. In her new book, she shows the personal struggle behind that quest.

Elaine Pagels, people say, is a heretic.

It’s an ancient accusation, of course, and it hardly wields as much power as it used to, especially in the free-wheeling religious landscape of America. And Ms. Pagels is, in fact, one of the globe’s foremost experts in early Christian heresies.

But as a woman who has been disrupting established orthodoxies for nearly half a century, her name still has the power to arouse disdain in certain religious circles.

“You know, people have sometimes called me ‘Elaine Pagan’,” the Princeton University professor says during an interview with the Monitor, smiling as she reflects on the trajectory of her life’s work, her many orthodox critics, and her new book, “Why Religion? A Personal Story.”

Forty years ago, Pagels’ first book, “The Gnostic Gospels,” was an unlikely sensation. A young historian without tenure and a specialist who read 1st century languages like Coptic, she was one of the first to illuminate an ancient trove of long-lost gospels and other writings about Jesus, writings which were simply stumbled upon by a local farmer near the Egyptian town Nag Hammadi in 1945.

“That’s lucky, since some of us need heresy – ‘choice,’ that is,” Pagels writes in her new book, noting, as specialists do, the meaning of the original Greek word hairesis.

That need for religious choice is actually a quintessential feature of the spiritual yearnings that have long defined America’s cacophony of religious voices: Puritans, Baptists, Pentecostals, Mormons, Christian Scientists, as well as self-reliant transcendentalists, counter-cultural communitarians, poets, artists, and hosts of others have each felt free to throw off existing institutional constraints and follow the longings in their hearts.

Her admirers and critics both marveled at how the work of such a young scholar could resonate with a much wider audience. Published in 1979, it won the National Book Award and other literary prizes. It brought her a MacArthur Fellowship and its “genius” grant. Modern Library later named it one of the 100 best nonfiction books since 1900 – as did the late music legend David Bowie.

Yet if “The Gnostic Gospels” made Pagels one of the most celebrated and reviled religious scholars of the past 100 years, her memoir “Why Religion?” helps put her work’s remarkable cultural resonance into a deeper spiritual context.

“Many of us, of course, have left religious institutions behind, and prefer to identify as ‘spiritual, not religious’,” she writes at the outset. “I’ve done both – had faith, lost it; joined groups, and left them.”

“What matters to me more than whether we participate in institutions or leave them is how we engage the imagination – in dreams, art, poetry, music – since what each of us needs, and what we can engage, obviously differs and changes throughout our lifetime.”

In a number of ways, Pagels is describing the language of the fastest-growing religious group in the country right now, the so-called “nones,” a cohort of mostly younger Americans who have begun leaving places of worship in droves. Rejecting the array of choices presented by the institutions and traditions that have long flourished in the country, most “nones” still maintain their own self-defined relationships with the divine.   

Still, at the heart of “Why Religion?” is a quiet meditation on the meaning of human mortality, and the grief and soul-shattering anguish the famous scholar experienced over the course her life.

More than 25 years ago, her firstborn son, then 6, collapsed in her arms and died of a rare respiratory illness. Just a year later, with her two younger children under her care, she lost her husband, who fell to his death while hiking in Colorado.

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